Right time, right venture


By JOY LEE

Malisse Tan's latest business, period products brand Bobble, came to life after a spell with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

THIRD time’s the charm for Malisse Tan.

Having co-founded two other failed startups previously – one in e-commerce and the other in property technology – Tan believes she has picked up some important lessons that will help her third venture stand for the longer run.

Her latest business, period products brand Bobble, came to life after a spell with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“After giving birth to my first child in January 2017, I was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and went through six months of chemotherapy. It was during this time that I started to become more conscious of what we were using at home in terms of household cleaning products, body care and personal care products.

“We started to switch to plant-based, natural and eco-friendlier alternatives. This also included looking into my period products,” she says.

After doing some research on what generic period products were made of and packaged in, Tan became concerned and started looking for a safer and eco-friendlier alternative.

She recalls that there were limited choices for tampons and pantyliners in Malaysia at the time and organic cotton-based period products were not available in Malaysia as these brands from overseas did not ship here.

“Now with this second chance in life, I told myself if I were to get into a third startup, I wanted to do something that had purpose. Realising there’s a big problem to solve in access to safer and sustainable period products and education in menstrual wellbeing, the idea of Bobble was born.”

Bobble offers eco-organic period products on subscription.

But after years of experience in corporate work – she was previously the regional director for business strategy at software company Meltwater – manufacturing and textiles just weren’t Tan’s forte. She had to research and read up on the materials used before finding the courage to launch another company.

Finding a manufacturer who could follow her specs also took some time. She had to deal with factories from Europe to China, go through samples and ensure that all the certification and lab testing were in place.

“We were lucky to find a factory that already had access to GOTS certified organic cotton and they had done a lot of the lab tests on the materials already as they specialise in making period products.

“But it took us almost a year to really find the right factory and put everything together. And a further four months to source, design and produce our biodegradable packaging which is done locally,” she adds.

She soft launched the brand in October 2019 through pop-up stores at bazaars and sold out her first batch of organic cotton pads within seven months. This assured Tan of her product and she officially launched the business the following year – in the midst of the pandemic.

After all, “periods don’t stop for pandemics,” she points out.

However, the rising demand for sustainable goods in recent times did change Tan’s sales plan. She had wanted to focus on an e-commerce and subscription-based business model but found that there was demand for Bobble’s products from many small and niche retailers such as sustainable and zero waste-styled stores, pharmacies and even supermarkets.

“We are now available in 27 locations online and offline in Malaysia and three locations in Singapore,” she says.

This also enables Bobble to leverage on other retailers’ online presence as they adapt to e-commerce. It would also mean that the team has to adjust to manage their inventory both online and offline.

According to Tan, the startup is on course to hit revenue growth of three times in 2021 and she’s looking to expand into five new markets over the next three years. She is eyeing markets across Asia and the United Arab Emirates.

Notably, Bobble appeals to a more conscious segment of consumers; customers who read product labels and care about what brands stand for.

Tan acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy to acquire subscription customers as it requires more market education and a bigger marketing push. Tan claims that Bobble has over 2,000 unique customers at the moment.

But apart from just selling eco-friendly products, Tan hopes to do something more with Bobble.

“Social impact is something that matters to me and I am working towards integrating an infrastructure where our customers and community will be enabled to join us on closing the period poverty gap and provide access to safer alternatives to menstruators in need.

“I want to implement this to become an ongoing and sustainable way of giving access, rather than donating a certain amount of pads which only lasts a few cycles long.

“For example, if each person can sponsor a girl for her monthly menstrual needs, this will contribute to enabling her to go to school, complete her education and have access to equal opportunities as she joins the workforce later on,” she shares.

She also hopes to break the stigma and taboo around period talk and work with more non-governmental organisations, corporates, the government and community partners to close the period poverty gap.

Coming off her experience with two failed ventures, Tan is more focused than ever in ensuring Bobble makes the cut. She explains that her previous companies did not make it because the timing and team weren’t right.

But the timing for Bobble, she notes, seems like a Goldilocks opportunity, especially with the rise of conscious consumerism.

“We have very clear problems to solve with very clear solutions – safer products, eco-friendlier alternatives, closing the period poverty gap, improving education in this space and convenience through a subscription service.

“We’ve been a bootstrapped business so far and are now looking for investment to help us grow and achieve our purpose for the people, and the planet,” she says.

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